It looks like Arizonans are going to get to decide if they want to be able to use marijuana for medical reasons.
Backers of a plan to let doctors provide written recommendations for marijuana turned in petitions Wednesday with what they said are about 252,000 signatures in support of the plan. That is nearly 100,000 more than need to be found valid to put the question on the November ballot.
If approved, Arizona would become the 15th state in the nation with a medical marijuana law.
But campaign manager Andrew Myers said what voters are being asked to approve here would be different.
Of note, he said, there could be no more than 120 dispensaries for medical marijuana set up in the entire state. And they would have to operate as non-profit entities.
That compares with California where there has been a proliferation of for-profit medical marijuana dealers operating under that state’s law.
And the Arizona law spells out what ailments and conditions qualify a patient, ranging from AIDS and chemotherapy treatment to severe and chronic pain. In California, doctors can let patients have marijuana for any condition at all.
The Arizona measure would have something that doesn’t exist elsewhere: A protection for employees who are medical marijuana patients from being fired solely because they test positive for the drug while on the job. Instead, a worker could be fired only if the company could show the person was actually smoking the drug on the job or actually impaired.
Myers said that provision is necessary, given that the drug can show up in a test weeks after the person has used it. Without it, he said, no medical marijuana patient could be employed in this state.
The measure picked up its first high-profile foe. Gov. Jan Brewer said she opposes loosening the legal restrictions on the drug.
“I’ve always believed that it was truly a gateway to drugs, and that with modern medicine, modern science can develop drugs that are just as strong and pain relieving as marijuana,” she said.
But Heather Torgerson, a brain cancer survivor, said her own experience using medical marijuana during her chemotherapy treatment proves otherwise.
“Although it worked, I became deathly ill,” she said. “I was to the point where my next round of chemo I probably wouldn’t be able to take because my white blood cell count was too low, my weight was dropping too fast, I wasn’t healthy enough. My doctor had exhausted all the options she had available legally to provide for me to avoid the nausea, to avoid the pain.”
Torgerson said she found “her own way,” which was medical marijuana. She said her weight increased because she was able to eat.
Cancer-free for two years, Torgerson said she continues monthly chemotherapy treatments — and continues to use marijuana that she has to purchase illegally from friends.
“I am the face of a patient standing here because of the use of medical marijuana,” she said. “I would much rather not live every day in fear that if I have my medical marijuana on me that I could go to jail.”
Torgerson said she never used marijuana before her illness and, in fact, said she wrote a paper in college against the use of marijuana, even for medical purposes, “because I did not know what it would be like to be on the other side of the fence.”
Arizonans voted in 1996 to let doctors prescribe marijuana and other illegal drugs to serious and terminally ill patients. But that measure never took effect after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration threatened to revoke all prescription-writing privileges of any physician who wrote such an order.
This measure gets around that by allowing doctors to provide what are written recommendations to their patients.
With that recommendation, individuals can get a card from the Arizona Department of Health Services allowing them to legally buy and possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from non-profit dispensaries. Those who live at least 25 miles away would be permitted to grow their own.
Dr. Sue Sisley, a Scottsdale doctor who specializes in psychiatry and internal medicine, supports the plan.
“It is vitally important that seriously and terminally ill patients have legal access to safe and effective means of treating their illness,” she said at Wednesday’s press conference when the petitions were submitted. “The potential benefits from medical marijuana greatly outweigh the risks.”
Myers acknowledged that virtually all the funding for the initiative comes from the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group whose goals include legalizing the drug for everyone. But Myers said that doesn’t make this initiative the first step toward that end in Arizona.